Banarasi brocade saris are richly embellished with patterns of silver and gold threads, representing the culmination of hand-weaving skills of the Indian subcontinent. An ongoing exhibit of over 100 objects at National Museum in Delhi is showcasing a range of Banarasi saris from the collection of the museum and private collections, tracing their origins, contemporary expressions and repertoire. Through the exhibit, these saris are presented both as personal adornment textiles and cultural artefacts that have been “produced, circulated and appreciated at home and in the world”.
Banaras became an established cotton weaving centre and renowned for silk brocade weaving in the seventeenth century. Natural calamities and decline of royal workshops in towns of Surat and Ahmedabad drove brocade weavers from the western Indian state of Gujarat to Banaras in Uttar Pradesh, thus creating a migration of skills, techniques and designs that helped enrich the existing craft. This influx from within the country as well as from regions of Persia and Central Asia introduced innovations in technology and weaves, forming a distinct Banarasi ‘look’. Artisans from Banaras created a wide range of products that included garments crafted on the loom, yardages, turbans cloths and furnishing fabrics. The production of the Banarasi sari as it is known today gained prominence much later in the nineteenth century.
“Brocading, a weaving technique often described as ‘embroidery on the loom’, involves extra patterning threads being inserted into the base structure of the woven fabric to create rich, dimensional motifs. This craft find expression in a multitude of forms and materials across the length and breadth of the subcontinent from the woollen shawls of Kutch, the elegant muga silk mekhalas of Assam and the light cotton Jamdanis of Bengal to the heavy silk saris of Kanchipuram and the rich silk fabrics of Surat, Ahmedabad and Banaras ornamental with fine patterning,” elaborates the exhibition catalogue. Motifs and techniques travelled freely between various brocade weaving traditions within India and were also influenced by Chinese, Persian and Southeast Asian textiles. In the larger scheme of brocades, each preserved their distinct identity and character.
“The identity of the Banarasi sari lies in the finely detailed and naturalistic representation of human, animal and floral forms. These intricate patterns were earlier achieved using the medieval naqsha technology. Looms in Banaras since the twentieth century have adapted jacquard technology for sari weaving. Where once the silk was sourced from Central Asia and China and the zari made with pure precious metals, the Banarasi sari of the twentieth century openly embraced rayon, lurex and synthetic dyes, allowing it to cater to the aspirations of a wider cross-section of the market”, highlights the exhibition.
Several forms similar to and often borrowing from the Banarasi sari have over time become dispersed in different regions of the country. Ashavali sari from the western state of Gujarat is decorated with a gold medallion near the pallu with a pair of lions rearing up from the corners. The Baluchari sari from Murshidabad in Bengal is designed with a pictorial quality that depicts aristocratic figures engaged in leisurely pursuits. The Jamdani from Dhaka has a lightness and translucency with intricately inlaid patterns. The sari from Banaras is known for its intricate curvilinear forms, with the classic hunting scene or ‘shikargarh’ sari being a traditional version of the silk sari from this region. Before the modern jacquard loom came into being, the fine patterning was achieved on pit-looms using the ‘naqsha’ system.
“The artisans weaving these brocades are the custodians of its motifs, designs and techniques and have kept it alive over centuries. And now, they have help from India's textile revivalists and the design community in this important task as seen in the National Museum Exhibition "Unbroken Thread" where Jaypore is exhibiting a sleek, contemporary example of brocade usage with a jacket by Mallika Mathur. The silk jacket is embellished with brocade motifs from handwoven Benarasi textiles, stitched on the fabric using Appliqué. Even the lining block printed in the traditional "Ada Panchpankha "or diagonal motifs pattern, is an age-old Benares design. It is heartening to see how this enduring textile, a living heirloom is moving ahead with the times in innovative forms”, says Shilpa Sharma, Co-Founder and product head of Jaypore, an online brand for craft-based designs.
The Banarasi sari is often viewed as a timeless and unchanging classic. However, it has undergone several layers of experimentation and continues to draw from the use of varied materials, techniques and motifs.